Tag Archives: spirituality

Theism Versus Spirituality

Prominent neo-atheist Sam Harris continues to reject theism, and does so thoughtfully and eloquently. In his latest book, Waking Up, he continues to argue the case against religion, but makes a powerful case for spirituality. Harris defines spirituality as an inner sense of a good and powerful reality, based on sound self-awarenesses and insightful questioning of one’s own consciousness. This type of spirituality, quite rightly, is devoid of theistic angels and demons. Harris reveals more in his interview with Gary Gutting, professor of philosophy at the University of Notre Dame.

From the NYT:

Sam Harris is a neuroscientist and prominent “new atheist,” who along with others like Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett and Christopher Hitchens helped put criticism of religion at the forefront of public debate in recent years. In two previous books, “The End of Faith” and “Letter to a Christian Nation,” Harris argued that theistic religion has no place in a world of science. In his latest book, “Waking Up,” his thought takes a new direction. While still rejecting theism, Harris nonetheless makes a case for the value of “spirituality,” which he bases on his experiences in meditation. I interviewed him recently about the book and some of the arguments he makes in it.

Gary Gutting: A common basis for atheism is naturalism — the view that only science can give a reliable account of what’s in the world. But in “Waking Up” you say that consciousness resists scientific description, which seems to imply that it’s a reality beyond the grasp of science. Have you moved away from an atheistic view?

Sam Harris: I don’t actually argue that consciousness is “a reality” beyond the grasp of science. I just think that it is conceptually irreducible — that is, I don’t think we can fully understand it in terms of unconscious information processing. Consciousness is “subjective”— not in the pejorative sense of being unscientific, biased or merely personal, but in the sense that it is intrinsically first-person, experiential and qualitative.

The only thing in this universe that suggests the reality of consciousness is consciousness itself. Many philosophers have made this argument in one way or another — Thomas Nagel, John Searle, David Chalmers. And while I don’t agree with everything they say about consciousness, I agree with them on this point.

The primary approach to understanding consciousness in neuroscience entails correlating changes in its contents with changes in the brain. But no matter how reliable these correlations become, they won’t allow us to drop the first-person side of the equation. The experiential character of consciousness is part of the very reality we are studying. Consequently, I think science needs to be extended to include a disciplined approach to introspection.

G.G.: But science aims at objective truth, which has to be verifiable: open to confirmation by other people. In what sense do you think first-person descriptions of subjective experience can be scientific?

S.H.: In a very strong sense. The only difference between claims about first-person experience and claims about the physical world is that the latter are easier for others to verify. That is an important distinction in practical terms — it’s easier to study rocks than to study moods — but it isn’t a difference that marks a boundary between science and non-science. Nothing, in principle, prevents a solitary genius on a desert island from doing groundbreaking science. Confirmation by others is not what puts the “truth” in a truth claim. And nothing prevents us from making objective claims about subjective experience.

Are you thinking about Margaret Thatcher right now? Well, now you are. Were you thinking about her exactly six minutes ago? Probably not. There are answers to questions of this kind, whether or not anyone is in a position to verify them.

And certain truths about the nature of our minds are well worth knowing. For instance, the anger you felt yesterday, or a year ago, isn’t here anymore, and if it arises in the next moment, based on your thinking about the past, it will quickly pass away when you are no longer thinking about it. This is a profoundly important truth about the mind — and it can be absolutely liberating to understand it deeply. If you do understand it deeply — that is, if you are able to pay clear attention to the arising and passing away of anger, rather than merely think about why you have every right to be angry — it becomes impossible to stay angry for more than a few moments at a time. Again, this is an objective claim about the character of subjective experience. And I invite our readers to test it in the laboratory of their own minds.

G. G.: Of course, we all have some access to what other people are thinking or feeling. But that access is through probable inference and so lacks the special authority of first-person descriptions. Suppose I told you that in fact I didn’t think of Margaret Thatcher when I read your comment, because I misread your text as referring to Becky Thatcher in “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer”? If that’s true, I have evidence for it that you can’t have. There are some features of consciousness that we will agree on. But when our first-person accounts differ, then there’s no way to resolve the disagreement by looking at one another’s evidence. That’s very different from the way things are in science.

S.H.: This difference doesn’t run very deep. People can be mistaken about the world and about the experiences of others — and they can even be mistaken about the character of their own experience. But these forms of confusion aren’t fundamentally different. Whatever we study, we are obliged to take subjective reports seriously, all the while knowing that they are sometimes false or incomplete.

For instance, consider an emotion like fear. We now have many physiological markers for fear that we consider quite reliable, from increased activity in the amygdala and spikes in blood cortisol to peripheral physiological changes like sweating palms. However, just imagine what would happen if people started showing up in the lab complaining of feeling intense fear without showing any of these signs — and they claimed to feel suddenly quite calm when their amygdalae lit up on fMRI, their cortisol spiked, and their skin conductance increased. We would no longer consider these objective measures of fear to be valid. So everything still depends on people telling us how they feel and our (usually) believing them.

However, it is true that people can be very poor judges of their inner experience. That is why I think disciplined training in a technique like “mindfulness,” apart from its personal benefits, can be scientifically important.

Read the entire story here.

Philip K. Dick – Future Gnostic

Simon Critchley, professor of philosophy, continues his serialized analysis of Philip K. Dick. Part I first appeared here. Part II examines the events around 2-3-74 that led to Dick’s 8,000 page Gnostic treatise “Exegesis”.

[div class=attrib]From the New York Times:[end-div]

In the previous post, we looked at the consequences and possible philosophic import of the events of February and March of 1974 (also known as 2-3-74) in the life and work of Philip K. Dick, a period in which a dose of sodium pentathol, a light-emitting fish pendant and decades of fiction writing and quasi-philosophic activity came together in revelation that led to Dick’s 8,000-page “Exegesis.”

So, what is the nature of the true reality that Dick claims to have intuited during psychedelic visions of 2-3-74? Does it unwind into mere structureless ranting and raving or does it suggest some tradition of thought or belief? I would argue the latter. This is where things admittedly get a little weirder in an already weird universe, so hold on tight.

In the very first lines of “Exegesis” Dick writes, “We see the Logos addressing the many living entities.” Logos is an important concept that litters the pages of “Exegesis.” It is a word with a wide variety of meaning in ancient Greek, one of which is indeed “word.” It can also mean speech, reason (in Latin, ratio) or giving an account of something. For Heraclitus, to whom Dick frequently refers, logos is the universal law that governs the cosmos of which most human beings are somnolently ignorant. Dick certainly has this latter meaning in mind, but — most important — logos refers to the opening of John’s Gospel, “In the beginning was the word” (logos), where the word becomes flesh in the person of Christ.

But the core of Dick’s vision is not quite Christian in the traditional sense; it is Gnostical: it is the mystical intellection, at its highest moment a fusion with a transmundane or alien God who is identified with logos and who can communicate with human beings in the form of a ray of light or, in Dick’s case, hallucinatory visions.

There is a tension throughout “Exegesis” between a monistic view of the cosmos (where there is just one substance in the universe, which can be seen in Dick’s references to Spinoza’s idea as God as nature, Whitehead’s idea of reality as process and Hegel’s dialectic where “the true is the whole”) and a dualistic or Gnostical view of the cosmos, with two cosmic forces in conflict, one malevolent and the other benevolent. The way I read Dick, the latter view wins out. This means that the visible, phenomenal world is fallen and indeed a kind of prison cell, cage or cave.

Christianity, lest it be forgotten, is a metaphysical monism where it is the obligation of every Christian to love every aspect of creation – even the foulest and smelliest – because it is the work of God. Evil is nothing substantial because if it were it would have to be caused by God, who is by definition good. Against this, Gnosticism declares a radical dualism between the false God who created this world – who is usually called the “demiurge” – and the true God who is unknown and alien to this world. But for the Gnostic, evil is substantial and its evidence is the world. There is a story of a radical Gnostic who used to wash himself in his own saliva in order to have as little contact as possible with creation. Gnosticism is the worship of an alien God by those alienated from the world.

The novelty of Dick’s Gnosticism is that the divine is alleged to communicate with us through information. This is a persistent theme in Dick, and he refers to the universe as information and even Christ as information. Such information has a kind of electrostatic life connected to the theory of what he calls orthogonal time. The latter is rich and strange idea of time that is completely at odds with the standard, linear conception, which goes back to Aristotle, as a sequence of now-points extending from the future through the present and into the past. Dick explains orthogonal time as a circle that contains everything rather than a line both of whose ends disappear in infinity. In an arresting image, Dick claims that orthogonal time contains, “Everything which was, just as grooves on an LP contain that part of the music which has already been played; they don’t disappear after the stylus tracks them.”

It is like that seemingly endless final chord in the Beatles’ “A Day in the Life” that gathers more and more momentum and musical complexity as it decays. In other words, orthogonal time permits total recall.

[div class=attrib]Read the entire article after the jump.[end-div]

Philip K. Dick – Mystic, Epileptic, Madman, Fictionalizing Philosopher

Professor of philosophy Simon Critchley has an insightful examination (serialized) of Philip K. Dick’s writings. Philip K. Dick had a tragically short, but richly creative writing career. Since his death twenty years ago, many of his novels have profoundly influenced contemporary culture.

[div class=attrib]From the New York Times:[end-div]

Philip K. Dick is arguably the most influential writer of science fiction in the past half century. In his short and meteoric career, he wrote 121 short stories and 45 novels. His work was successful during his lifetime but has grown exponentially in influence since his death in 1982. Dick’s work will probably be best known through the dizzyingly successful Hollywood adaptations of his work, in movies like “Blade Runner” (based on “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?”), “Total Recall,” “Minority Report,” “A Scanner Darkly” and, most recently, “The Adjustment Bureau.” Yet few people might consider Dick a thinker. This would be a mistake.

Dick’s life has long passed into legend, peppered with florid tales of madness and intoxication. There are some who consider such legend something of a diversion from the character of Dick’s literary brilliance. Jonathan Lethem writes — rightly in my view — “Dick wasn’t a legend and he wasn’t mad. He lived among us and was a genius.” Yet Dick’s life continues to obtrude massively into any assessment of his work.

Everything turns here on an event that “Dickheads” refer to with the shorthand “the golden fish.” On Feb. 20, 1974, Dick was hit with the force of an extraordinary revelation after a visit to the dentist for an impacted wisdom tooth for which he had received a dose of sodium pentothal. A young woman delivered a bottle of Darvon tablets to his apartment in Fullerton, Calif. She was wearing a necklace with the pendant of a golden fish, an ancient Christian symbol that had been adopted by the Jesus counterculture movement of the late 1960s.

The fish pendant, on Dick’s account, began to emit a golden ray of light, and Dick suddenly experienced what he called, with a nod to Plato, anamnesis: the recollection or total recall of the entire sum of knowledge. Dick claimed to have access to what philosophers call the faculty of “intellectual intuition”: the direct perception by the mind of a metaphysical reality behind screens of appearance. Many philosophers since Kant have insisted that such intellectual intuition is available only to human beings in the guise of fraudulent obscurantism, usually as religious or mystical experience, like Emmanuel Swedenborg’s visions of the angelic multitude. This is what Kant called, in a lovely German word, “die Schwärmerei,” a kind of swarming enthusiasm, where the self is literally en-thused with the God, o theos. Brusquely sweeping aside the careful limitations and strictures that Kant placed on the different domains of pure and practical reason, the phenomenal and the noumenal, Dick claimed direct intuition of the ultimate nature of what he called “true reality.”

Yet the golden fish episode was just the beginning. In the following days and weeks, Dick experienced and indeed enjoyed a couple of nightlong psychedelic visions with phantasmagoric visual light shows. These hypnagogic episodes continued off and on, together with hearing voices and prophetic dreams, until his death eight years later at age 53. Many very weird things happened — too many to list here — including a clay pot that Dick called “Ho On” or “Oh Ho,” which spoke to him about various deep spiritual issues in a brash and irritable voice.

Now, was this just bad acid or good sodium pentothal? Was Dick seriously bonkers? Was he psychotic? Was he schizophrenic? (He writes, “The schizophrenic is a leap ahead that failed.”) Were the visions simply the effect of a series of brain seizures that some call T.L.E. — temporal lobe epilepsy? Could we now explain and explain away Dick’s revelatory experience by some better neuroscientific story about the brain? Perhaps. But the problem is that each of these causal explanations misses the richness of the phenomena that Dick was trying to describe and also overlooks his unique means for describing them.

The fact is that after Dick experienced the events of what he came to call “2-3-74” (the events of February and March of that year), he devoted the rest of his life to trying to understand what had happened to him. For Dick, understanding meant writing. Suffering from what we might call “chronic hypergraphia,” between 2-3-74 and his death, Dick wrote more than 8,000 pages about his experience. He often wrote all night, producing 20 single-spaced, narrow-margined pages at a go, largely handwritten and littered with extraordinary diagrams and cryptic sketches.

The unfinished mountain of paper, assembled posthumously into some 91 folders, was called “Exegesis.” The fragments were assembled by Dick’s friend Paul Williams and then sat in his garage in Glen Ellen, Calif., for the next several years. A beautifully edited selection of these texts, with a golden fish on the cover, was finally published at the end of 2011, weighing in at a mighty 950 pages. But this is still just a fraction of the whole.

[div class=attrib]Read the entire article after the jump.[end-div]

[div class=attrib]Image: Philip K. Dick by R.Crumb. Courtesy of Wired.[end-div]